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Vol. 20, No. 5, 2021
 
     
 
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should we be worried about
THE DECLINE OF READING


by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Classic - a book which people praise but don't read.
Mark Twain

 

During the past year there has been a spirited campaign -- led by a growing contingent of unhappy-unread journalists and writers -- lamenting the Internet-engendered decline of reading. But the decline isn’t as novel as the recent proliferation of jeremiahs would have us believe.

In 1948 the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gassett, from a brilliant small book of essays entitled The Dehumanization of Art, writes: “the reading public buys fewer novels . . . suffice to make us suspect that something is amiss with the literary genre of the novel.”

So if the decline of reading’s roots run deeper than we might suspect, in our time it is worrisomely more endemic and omnivorous. In the 1940s and 50s, Ortega y Gassett proposed that the form of the novel, which was driven by storyline, hadn’t sufficiently adapted to the reader’s growing appetite for character development, whereas today it is the medium of the printed page that has fallen into disrepute. In fact the decline of reading is so widespread that it is no longer beyond the pale to imagine a day when the printed page will be added to the endangered species list. And it is not just the novel that is being read less but almost everything in print: news reports, op-ed pieces, magazines, essays, scientific papers and textbooks. In short, the printed word has been hi-jacked, co-opted by Internet-generated graphics and videos. Since the turn of the century, the masses, en masse, have been defaulting to electronic media for their information and entertainment. The practical reasons behind this seismic shift do not augur well for the great tradition of reading. In large part because the Internet, as a tool for accessing information, is demonstratively more efficient than any page turning, which makes the one-click availability of everything known to mankind a natural first choice. What this means in practical terms is that the iGeneration spends significantly more time on its iGadgets to the effect that reading has become the equivalent of an ancient art.

Leading the charge of the lament brigade are mostly opinion writers and essayists, whose daily or weekly columns are not being read or are being eliminated altogether and/or are being repurposed for the Internet. In voce magna, they are mouse-quick to come to the defense of literary classics that most people can’t name much less read, but their first concern is themselves. When they trek (online) to their oracles and study the charts they see red alert.

Reading has fallen into such disfavour if not outright ignominy that there are persons personally known to me, who, without the slightest compunction, freely admit they don’t read – almost as if it is a badge of honour. Talk about turning (burning) the page.

They argue they acquire their knowledge and information through television or their iGadgets. A friend correctly pointed out that for most of human history knowledge was communicated orally. I offhandedly remarked that if reading a book or two meant that you would no longer have to live in a cave that had no central heating and your life expectancy needn’t be limited to 33, perhaps committing knowledge to parchment and vellum wasn’t such a bad idea after all. As if I simply didn’t get it, he went on to explain: “I’m a family man, own a house, drive a nice car, and am happy in life, why should I read, what am I missing in life?” Well, I thought to myself (conflict avoidance syndrome), if the nurturing and development of the ability to reason and think is directly related to reading (an activity inherently more demanding than looking at a screen), perhaps the growing society of non-readers aren’t doing as well as they think. So much for the examined life.

When I reflect on all the good reasons to read, I am personally dumbfounded that people are reading less. Reduced to its essential task, the written word is a medium that enables contact between a reader and someone who isn’t present or is deceased. If Shakespeare, for example, hadn’t left us the words he wrote, we would have no way of making contact with him, or worse, we might not have ever learned that he existed and thought profoundly on matters of life and death. In the film The Scottish Play, one of the characters proposes that if aliens were to discover our planet they would name it Shakespeare.

With J. D. Salinger and Earnest Hemingway in mind, let us try to figure out why people no longer want to read, that is make contact with these exceptionally interesting and talented figures. After all, people pay huge sums of money to participate in séances where the host-for-hire alleges s/he can facilitate communication with the dead. If you are the granddaughter of Hemmingway, isn’t it much easer opening up one of his books or notebooks than attend a costly (dubious) séance?

Salinger (1919-2010) and Hemmingway (1899-1961) continue to command the reader’s attention and adulation because their art, their creations, speak to present time. Don't we all daydream of being admitted to those privileged inner circles that form around celebrities and distinguished people in their field? In their day we would have given an arm and a leg to talk shop with a Salinger or a Hemmingway. Since that is no longer possible, but in lieu of the fact they left a permanent record of their feelings and thoughts, we can still easily get to know them by reading them.

From the 5th to the 1st century BC, there are only handful of names that are still known to us. One would think that we would be curious to know who they are and what they had to say back then – especially if what they had to say is relevant today. And it’s so easy. We merely have to turn the page and we hear, from one of his famous dialogues, Mr. Plato expatiating on subjects such as virtue, the passions and politics.

And on those rare or serendipidous occasions where meeting the author (novelist, journalist) is an option, not to be trifled with are the many practical reasons we should prefer the book to the real life encounter. First and foremost, reading obviates all the sartorial aggravations associated with dressing up (or down) for the especially initial get-together. In terms of the actual meeting, we don’t have to pretend we have read everything the writer has written, or fear that the writer might find us uninteresting or not sufficiently literary. We don’t have to deal with a writer’s particular quirks: body odour, an off putting voice, a drinking problem, volatile mood swings, trips to the bathroom, the writer’s unhappiness over the reception of his latest book, health problems, relationship problems. In fact the more we learn about the writer’s life, you would think we would be begging more for the book than the person.

Unlike the unedited, diamond in the rough of the writer’s daily life, what we encounter in the book, or essay or op-ed column has been painstakingly distilled out of the chaos of his life such that his very best is presented to us on a platter, and it is ‘we’ who choose the hour of the day when the moveable feast begins. We merely have to turn the page and the writer’s style and voice (his DNA), which constitute his world view, is rendered numinous through the words he left us. And in proportion to the effort we put into meeting his words (his thoughts) on their own terms, there is a meeting of minds that perhaps no actual meeting can equal. The best argument for reading over meeting the writer is that there are no performance issues other than the effort we must put in to render the words meaningful.

And yet reading continues to decline.

Marshall McLuhan distinguishes between hot and cold media: TV is cold, reading is hot. And what he means is that when our minds become lazy, non-performing, the TV continues with or without us. But not the book. When the mind tires, fatigues, the book, the reading stops. Reading requires a minimum amount of mental effort that cool media do not. Which suggests that the mental muscle required by reading has been rendered flabby as a result of our overriding preference for cool medium: television and all of its offshoots (Internet, iPhone, iEverything).

And into this changing of the guard, we must guard against short-shrifting human nature. From our humble beginnings in the steppes of Africa to the present, when the option is available, human beings will invariably find and pounce on the path of least resistance. So if TV and the Internet are more easily accomplished than the act of reading, it is predictable that the former will become the dominant mode of communication, and that is precisely what is happening on our watch.

Only 13% of readers read the op-ed section of the newspaper. Why? Because they lack the mental muscle required of serious reading. For the same reason, all of us, avid readers included, don’t read legal documents or the legalese that is included in all the agreements we sign on to as it pertains to our purchases and subscriptions. The language of legalese is lifeless, strictly utilitarian, and most of us can’t be bothered, that is we lack the mental muscle to make it understandable to ourselves – and we pay big money to trained professionals (notaries, lawyers) who can read and write it like a mother tongue.

McLuhan hypothesized that when a new medium of communication is introduced, it results in the atrophy (self-amputation) of the extended or enhanced physical body part or sensory nerve endings. Which begs the question: are we presiding over -- by choice -- the degeneration of those vital neural pathways that enable us to read? Especially among the young, the well-trodden path of least resistance leads to the Internet where the prevalence of the moving image is more impactful than the printed page. Which is to say, it is no longer the stats and specs that sell the car, but the shapely, upwardly mobile woman at the wheel taking a sharp corner at speed.

So if reading is in deed in serious decline, it also appears there is no telltale sign that a cure or trend-reversal option is on the horizon. Thankfully, there is no evidence that the decline of reading is resulting in civilizational decline. The advances in technology and medicine upon which our collective well-being depends continue unabated. We only have to look to the recent rapid development of the Covid 19 vaccine. Prior to the pandemic, vaccine development and implementation required a minimum of five years to ten years. The Covid 19 vaccine was accomplished in a mere 14 months. And if we should discover that among the many scientists who worked on the vaccine that there would be some who don’t read or read significantly less, would it matter? On top of which there is no metaphysical evidence that a non-reader’s life is less meaningful than the reader’s. And there is no empirical evidence that reading less is tantamount to thinking less? Or that the aesthetic enjoyment from reading is greater than the enjoyment derived from conducting a complex online operation, or mastering a video game?

Man continuously dwells in a state of apprehension as it concerns the outer world which is everywhere. He endeavours to arrange it so that he can find time to develop his inner world to better understand his greater circumstance. Reading is one of the many means he employs to be better prepared for the contingencies of life. That reading no longer enjoys favoured status in this fugitive quest does not necessarily render man less adept in dealing with contingency and adversity. Let us recall there was a time when the poets thought the world wouldn’t survive without verse. So we must distinguish between the very likely fact that reading is in decline over and against the effects of this development as it concerns the individual’s ability to make a better, more meaningful life for himself, his family and society at large.

What we can state with some confidence is that in the years to come, we will be better informed on how the apparent decline of reading is affecting the world as it turns. And we should also note, pace David Solway, that we are what we read as well as what we don't read.


 

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also by Robert J. Lewis:

ORIGINAL ALT-CLASSICAL MUSIC FOR GUITAR

In Praise of Useless Activities
When Sex Became Dirty
Blood Meridian: (McCarthy): An Appreciation

Trump & Authencity

Language, Aim & Fire

One Hand Clapping: The Zen Koan Hoax

Human Nature: King of the Hill

The Trouble with Darwin
The Life & Death of Anthony Bourdain
Denying Identity and Natural Law
The Cares versus the Care-nots
Elon Musk: Brilliant but Wrong
As the Corporation Feasts, the Earth Festers
Flirting & Consequences
Breaking Bonds
Oscar Wilde and the Birth of Cool
The Big
Deconstructing Skin Colour
To Party - Parting Ways with Consciousness
Comedy - Constant Craving
Choosing Gender
Becoming Our Opposites
Broken Feather's Last Stand

Abstract Art or Artifice II
Old People
Beware the Cherry-Picker
Once Were Animal
Islam is Smarter Than the West
Islam Divided by Two
Pedophiling Innocence
Grappling with Revenge
Hit Me With That Music
The Sinking of the Friendship
Om: The Great Escape
Actor on a Hot Tin Roof
Being & Self-Consciousness
Giacometti: A Line in the Wilderness
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
1-800-Philosophy
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene

 

 

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